Joseph of Arimathea plays a big role in defending Jesus’ resurrection. He stood near the center of Bart Ehrman’s reconsideration of the facts surrounding the resurrection. After all, if Joseph of Arimathea really did have a tomb that was used for Jesus’ body, then the burial is nearly secure. This fact is often the most contested, so the importance of Joseph is seen quite clearly. This post will give 9 reasons why Joseph of Arimathea was a real historical figure using Eckhard Schnabel’s recent Jesus in Jerusalem: the Last Days.
All four gospels mention Joseph of Arimathea.  Why is he designated by “of Arimathea” though? This is because Joseph was “the second most common male name among Palestinian Jews.” Arimathea could be his birth place or where he owned estates. Arimathea is identified with Ramathaim, a Judean town. It is about 9 miles northeast of Lydda and 22 miles northwest of Jerusalem. Given the references to Joseph’s wealth and membership in the Sanhedrin, he would be part of the lay aristocracy. Joseph’s relation to the Jesus movement is complex. He is sympathetic, although not necessarily fully committed. He is a follower in some sense, but he fears the Judean rulers.
The centrality of Joseph is in his burial of Jesus in the tomb.  The traditional site is “the Anastasis of Constantine’s church, under the Edicule in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.” Many scholars accept this identification as authentic. Dan Bahat is one of the “most distinguished archaeologists of Jerusalem.” He states that while there is not absolute certainty, no other site can lay a claim nearly as weighty and there is no reason to reject authenticity. The lack of certainty is due to the fact that “there is another tomb underneath the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that dates from the Roman period, known as the Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, located at the western side of the rotunda of the Anastasis.”  As is well known, a stone was rolled to seal or unseal the tomb. However, we know that the traditional depiction of the stone as a circle is not historically accurate. Nonetheless, the terminology used in the New Testament does not indicate the shape of the stone. Thus, the fact that the burial stone for Jesus was “most likely rectangular or square in shape” is no problem. These, too, had to be rolled.
Jesus was buried with a linen cloth.  The quality varied from coarse to very fine. Removing Jesus from the cross would require several people. Joseph would probably have used some of his servants. This also explains how Joseph would not become unclean through this process. The spices that Nicodemus brings weighed about 75 pounds. This number is not abnormal though, as “Aquila burned about 80 pounds of spices at the funeral of Gamaliel.” Since Nicodemus was part of one of the richest families in Jerusalem, the expense is not a worry either. The burial process included laying out the body, washing and anointing it, binding the chin, and closing the eyes. The hair was also trimmed. While the body was wrapped in linen, the head was covered with a veil. Scented spices were used in all three phases of the burial process: the preparation, the funeral procession, and the interment. The stones in front of the tomb typically weighed 1,500 to 3,000 pounds. A transverse channel made it easier to roll the stone. However, it was not possible to roll the stone from inside the tomb.
A number of lines come together to support the biblical portrayal of Joseph of Arimathea. This does not cover all of the supporting evidence. These nine we cite simply highlight some of the interesting lines provided by Schnabel.
- It was risky for a man to ask for the body of a convicted criminal. Thus, only a courageous ally would do so. This boldness by Joseph is mentioned in Mark 15:43. 
- Haste surrounds the burial of Jesus. This must be done in order to follow God’s Law with the coming Sabbath and Passover. This haste perfectly fits Jesus being buried in Joseph’s tomb. 
- Similarly, this hasty burial fits the portrayal of Joseph as sympathetic to Jesus. As Schnabel says, “Unless one assumes that Joseph was a pious Jew who buried Jesus merely in order to prevent the land from being defiled on Passover and to fulfill the demands of Jewish piety in a concern to provide a proper burial for the dead, there is no good reason to infer that Jesus’ tomb ‘was probably a well-used crypt reserved for the burial of criminals.'”  On top of this, the point above about it being risky to ask for the body of a condemned criminal conjoins to make a proper burial even more likely.
- If crucifixion victims would normally be taken down and buried when Rome was not at war with the Jewish nation (as Evans argues), then others would have buried Jesus’ body. Thus, Joseph asking to bury the body pushes against Jesus being buried in a common place for criminals. 
- The traditional site of the tomb was discovered when Constantine demolished Hadrian’s Temple of Venus. As the fill was removed, the tomb was discovered. As Schnabel says, “The fact that the area that lay well inside the city walls at the time of Constantine, bearing no resemblance to the original area, was remembered as the site of Jesus’ tomb is a strong argument for its authenticity.” 
- As noted above, anointing was part of the burial process. However, this is never mentioned in the gospels. The gospels do, however, mention that the women followers intended to anoint Jesus’ body on Sunday morning. Thus, this fact fits perfectly with the surrounding facts. 
- Joseph was part of the lay aristocracy. During this time, the lay aristocracy buried their deceased family members in tombs cut into rock. This fits perfectly with Joseph’s tomb. 
- The gospels stress that the women watched and were intent on seeing how Jesus’ body was taken care of and where it was laid. The way this is mentioned in the gospels highlights the eyewitness aspect of these events. 
- The resurrection motif occurs in various forms of Roman fictional literature from the time of emperor Nero in the middle of the first century. Sometimes this is simply an apparent death. Protesilaus, however, is given a resurrected body, walks among the people, and teaches them. Glen Bowersock, a classical historian, says “the Gospel stories of Jesus’ resurrection provided the impetus for the emergence of Roman fiction in which the resurrection motif was prominent, concluding that ‘the stories of Jesus inspired the polytheists to create a wholly new genre that we might call romantic scripture.'”  This provides strong evidence for bodily resurrection of Jesus early on in the Jesus movement.
This work is comprehensive. It covers possibly everything about the days of Jesus in and around his crucifixion and resurrection. Schnabel discusses 72 people, 17 places, the timeline, 24 events, and the significance of the events. 2,255 endnotes (boo!) make up 179 pages. This work is simply outstanding.
In order to do justice to it, we have had to focus on one small facet: Joseph of Arimathea. We have looked at the man, his tomb, and his burial of Jesus. We have also given nine pieces of evidence that support Jesus’ bodily resurrection. As Eckhard Schnabel says, “There is no good reason to doubt that Joseph buried Jesus’ body in his new family tomb that was nearby the location of Jesus’ crucifixion in a garden.” 
Again, all of this is only the tip of the iceberg. For anyone who wants to learn more about this fascinating topic, Jesus in Jerusalem: the Last Days should be mandatory reading. I plan on consulting it consistently as I work my way through this topic.